Mark Sanford's Loss Last Night Shows the Dangers of Underestimating President Trump and of Being Out of Touch With the Rank-and-File GOP

State Rep. Katie Arrington hugs supporters as she defeated U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel for Katie Arrington's results party on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in North Charleston, S.C. (Andrew Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP)

State Rep. Katie Arrington hugs supporters as she defeated U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel for Katie Arrington’s results party on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, in North Charleston, S.C. (Andrew Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP)


Last night former South Carolina governor and (almost) five-term member of the House of Representatives Mark Sanford lost his primary election to political newcomer, State Representative Katie Arrington by a 50.5-46.5 margin. I’m not sure what either candidate really ran on other than Arrington–a Romney and Rubio supporter in the primaries–supported Trump and said she’d do so in the House and Sanford–a Trump supporter in the 2016 election–has decided that being NeverTrump was his life’s calling. Sometimes, his NeverTrump enthusiasm got the better of his commonsense, like this in the aftermath of the shooting of Representative Steve Scalise:

President Trump is “partially to blame” for the hostile, polarized environment that led to Wednesday’s shooting during a baseball practice being held by congressional Republicans, Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said on Thursday.

Sanford drew three potential primary challengers, two of whom dropped out. This, apparently, was not a big shock in South Carolina where his under-performing 55-45 win in the 2016 primary, despite his sky-high name recognition, drew some comment.

And yesterday, about three hours before polls closed in South Carolina, President Trump waded into the contest:


When this came out there was a lot of chuckling about how this was “after most South Carolinians had voted.” That’s nonsense. I’ve been an election judge for about a decade. You have a rush of white-collar voters when the polls open in the morning. You have a small trickle around lunchtime. And you have the blue collar vote showing up on the way home from work. That pattern is the standard just about anywhere in the country. The tweet came early enough to make a difference in a close race, but late enough that Trump had no real skin in the game if there was a loss. In other words, quintessential Trump. There’s little doubt, given the virtual presence of Trump on the ballot, that this made a difference. But the real difference was that Sanford doesn’t seem to have had any fight in him.

Trump himself stayed out of the race until just hours before the polls closed on Tuesday, when he sent out a surprise tweet calling for the congressman’s defeat. Arrington’s campaign rushed out a robocall to 50,000 homes highlighting the president’s last-minute endorsement.

Other South Carolina pols say that while Sanford’s opposition to Trump was his undoing, other factors were at play. Some people close to the congressman believe that voters never really got over his affair, which destroyed his national ambitions. Others say there was general exhaustion with a politician who’s been around since the mid-1990s and that voters were ready for someone new like Arrington, a political newcomer serving her first term in the state legislature.

In what was perhaps an early sign his political strength was abating, Sanford received just 55 percent in his 2016 primary, against an opponent who spent little.

Others say Sanford simply failed to run an effective race this year, allowing himself to be out-worked. Sanford’s lethargic reelection bid was a lightly-staffed, shoestring affair. Many of the advisers who guided his gubernatorial and congressional campaigns were not involved.

After realizing he was in trouble, the ever-frugal congressman, who hadn’t spent money on TV ads in five years, rushed out a slate of commercials. Some went after Arrington directly. Others tried to make the case that Sanford had cooperated with the White House.

While Arrington relentlessly cast Sanford as anti-Trump, his backers worried, Sanford struggled to find a coherent message.

“She got up on TV early and defined the message, and he let her define him,” said state Rep. Nancy Mace, a Sanford supporter.


I think there was an additional reminder here. My longtime friend, Erick Erickson, has a piece up this morning on Sanford’s defeat called Where Do Those of Us Go Who Believe in Limited Government?:

But there is now a price to be paid for opposing President Trump in the GOP and Sanford has paid that price by standing on principle. His defeat was cheered on by Republicans who have been longtime Sanford fans due to his principled stand against the GOP’s constant feeding of the Leviathan. But they would not abide starving Trump’s Leviathan.

I’m not sure where conservatives go. Sanford, portrayed as a moderate merely for being vocal against the President, was actually one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives. Sanford did not change, his party did. And it changed in a way that is not conservative. If anything, the party has moved away from consistent principle to the politics of the here and now in a cult of personality.

Increasingly, it seems there is no home anymore within the GOP for a principled stand against the Leviathan.

I have to say that I find this sort of surprising from several different angles. The GOP has, throughout my life, had a conservative wing but it has never been a conservative party. It has generally been a pro-business party–and used to be socially conservative before the Really Smart People decided that being pro-abort and pro-gay marriage were nice things–that was mostly in favor of individual freedom (see Flag Burning Amendments if you want exceptions) but it has always been a populist party and many of the more popular presidents with the GOP were those who could harness that populism (go back and read how Nixon and Agnew tag teamed the press and drew out construction workers as counter-protesters to the Vietnam War protesters). As many other than myself have noted, for all the talk about reducing the size of government, that is only a winning issue in the comments sections on conservative blogs. Among GOP voters, they want government spending cut so long as it isn’t spending directed at them. If you doubt me, here is a cut from the June 1 debate between Arrington and Sanford.


The candidates went after each other from the outset. Sanford accused Arrington of being a tax-and-spend politician, citing a $1.4 Billion increase in the state General Fund budget during her two years in the South Carolina House and her vote for a 12 cents per gallon increase in the state tax on gasoline and diesel fuel over six years. Arrington labeled Sanford as a career politician, noting that he first ran for Congress in 1994.

Another issue in the debate was support for President Donald Trump. Arrington said, “Mark has spent the better part of two years bashing President Trump on CNN.” She equated Trump to the Republican team captain and suggested the Republicans in Congress are obligated to follow his lead. Sanford responded by asking the rhetorical question, “Who is the captain?” He pointed to the hundreds in the crowd and said, “I would say you are (the captain).” Neither candidate supported Trump during the February 2016 South Carolina primary.

Arrington went after Sanford for not using his position on the House Transportation Committee to bring money to the district for needed infrastructure projects. Sanford defended his position, citing the $21 Trillion national debt and runway annual budget deficits. He has sponsored the Penny Plan (HR-5572), a bill that would force Congress to reduce spending by 1% a year for five years until the budget is balanced and limit federal spending to 18% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) afterward.

The candidates fundamentally agreed on most issues, including the need to reform our healthcare system, improving the National Flood Insurance Program, building the border wall, protecting the right to life for the unborn, and opposing the Iran nuclear deal signed by President Obama by executive order. Arrington suggested a funding source for the border wall – charging a border crossing fee for those entering the country legally from Mexico.

In the closing statements, Arrington said, “It is time to turn the page on the Mark Sanford era. It is time an outsider to replace a career politician and work to fix our roads and bridges take care of our armed forces and our veterans.” Sanford closed by stating that America is at a tipping point with its $21 Trillion national debt and is at risk for a devalued dollar and runaway inflation. He pointed to his endorsements from conservative groups FreedomWorks, the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and Tea Party Patriots.


Think about that. The candidate who voted in favor of a 12 cents per gallon increase in the gasoline tax put the guy against the tax of the defensive by hitting him for not spending enough when he was governor, and, according to other accounts, got Sanford to claim he’d vote for a highway bill that he’d voted against.

More to the point, I think it is surprising that anyone is surprised that a candidate in a GOP primary election who has made opposing a GOP president with a 90% approval rating inside the GOP his life’s work got his ass handed to him.

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